Azerbaijan wasn’t on my travel wish list. To be completely honest, until a few months ago, I wasn’t even sure where exactly on the map it was or who its neighbours were. If I’d been playing the World Capitals game of my childhood, I dare say I’d have barely managed to correctly identify the capital city as Baku.
Yet, here I was on a warm July evening two weeks ago, visiting Azerbaijan on the invitation of our National Geographic partners in that country. It was 9.30 p.m. as we drove down the smooth highway connecting Baku’s glittering airport to the city centre. Being summer, the sun had only just set. As we rode along, a surreal city unfolded in front of us, lit up like none other I’d ever seen. Against the lingering deep indigo of the sky, massive modern buildings were all aglow. The polished facades of the oil-boom architecture of Baku left me more than a little stunned. This isn’t at all what I had imagined I’d see.
By the time I landed in Azerbaijan I had read that over 90 per cent of its population is Muslim by religion, and that its neighbour to the south is Iran. I had, without really thinking about it, developed an image of this land in my mind. In which I wasn’t expecting to see locals drinking alcohol in al fresco restaurants or spot vineyards covering Caucasus hillsides as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t expecting to see women everywhere in short bob cuts and stylish sleeveless dresses, and men with ready smiles and friendly handshakes.
I found myself in a country where the national fruit is the pomegranate, where almost everyone has watched at least one Raj Kapoor film, and where the word for city is pronounced “sheher”, and the local fresh produce market is called Taaza Bazaar. So much of it, including the bazaar, seemed at once familiar and yet so different.
At the market an elderly lady beckoned me to her stall and tried to convince me to buy lavashana, a thin sheet of dried sour cherry that reminded me of Indian aam papad. Delicious, she smacked her lips making that almost universal gesture for excellent, with thumb and forefinger coming together in a circle. When I tasted it however, I almost spat it out—it was so intensely sour. But I pretended to like it. And I lingered, tasting all kinds of other things, listening for a word I could recognise as she rattled off in Azeri. I bought her sumac and “zaffaran,” and a few unfamiliar ingredients from various other shops that all appeared so very familiar.
At another stall, a vendor was hawking bunches of a dried medicinal herb called uzerlik. I learnt that when a mother lights a bunch of this and waves its smoke above her crying baby, it will be calmed almost instantly. Though the specific plant and its use was new to me, the thought behind it was something I could relate to from Indian culture.
And so it went in my travels through this unique Eurasian country: The sights and sounds of the foreign and the recognisable, the well-known and the obscure, always dancing together. It felt like I was sitting on a bridge between East and West. And I sensed that no matter where I go or how far I feel I’ve been, almost everywhere I can see some connections to home, while simultaneously discovering whole new worlds. That’s the amazing thing about visiting a new place of which you know very little, and surely the fascinating thing about our planet in general: Wherever you travel, there are always new spheres of the unknown sitting side by side with the commonplace, waiting to greet you.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Familiar Unknowns”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.